"It is all a Thing of the Past": An Interview with Frederick Douglass, 1886.

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Date: Summer 2018
From: African American Review(Vol. 51, Issue 2)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 2,486 words
Lexile Measure: 1500L

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The cataclysmic end of the American Civil War signaled the decline in black abolitionist transatlantic journeys to Britain. Hundreds of African Americans, many of whom were formerly enslaved individuals, traveled to British shores from the 1830s to the 1860s, to lecture against slavery, raise money to free family members still enslaved, or settle. Between 1876 and 1895, only three activists received extensive coverage in the press: Josiah Henson, Frederick Douglass, and Ida B. Wells exploited their celebrity to remind British audiences that slavery was not dead, and that its specter continued to haunt not only them but also all African Americans in the United States. Douglass remains unique, however, in the fact he was the only black activist to receive extensive British press coverage until his death in 1895.

Douglass's transatlantic visits to Britain are slowly gathering more attention, and apart from Leigh Fought's Women in the World of Frederick Douglass and John McKivigan's forthcoming volumes of The Frederick Douglass Papers, his visit in 1886 is woefully understudied. Alan Rice and Martin Crawford in Liberating Sojourn and Richard Blackett in Building an Antislavery Wall do not cover Douglass's trip in the 1880s, and the volumes by John Blassingame and John McKivigan (The Frederick Douglass Papers ) and Philip Foner (The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass ) also do not address this little-known aspect of Douglass's life and career. Douglass arrived in Britain in October 1886 with his second wife, Helen Pitts, for an extended (and delayed) honeymoon trip around the European continent. While his mission was a personal one, Douglass did not fail to exploit the opportunity to remind British audiences that racism--as a legacy of slavery--still existed in America. Previously unexplored, the importance of this interview, given in London to the Daily News, cannot be understated. The interview not only highlights Douglass's special connection with Britain, but also exposes a new dimension in how we should view his relationship with his wife Helen. More powerfully still, the interview reveals a rare chink in Douglass's public performative armor: his melancholic depression at the entrenched racism in America threatened to overwhelm him.

Douglass's first visit to Britain was in 1845. After the publication of his Narrative that year, American abolitionists based in Boston (including William Lloyd Garrison), as well as Douglass himself, believed he should lie low abroad after the dangers he incurred for exposing his past in literary form. He traveled extensively around England and Scotland, and lectured in Ireland's major cities, speaking to hundreds of thousands of people. He became a celebrity in Britain and the myriad successful speeches and donations raised were stepping-stones to fame in America. The British press were fascinated with such a powerful orator and his status as a formerly enslaved individual, and waxed lyrical about his stage presence. Indeed, he was described in 1846 by The Leeds Times as "one of nature's noblemen" and an "eye which in its flashing indicates it is the true inlet of the soul" (Leeds Times 26 Dec....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A675550633